Proposed Mentor ordinance draws concern from Painesville City, local organizations

Feb. 12—Mentor officials are considering an ordinance to continue conserving as park land four properties the city owns in neighboring Painesville, a move opposed by Painesville officials and local organizations who believe it will inhibit the area's economic development.

The ordinance was introduced at Mentor City Council's Feb. 6 meeting and would apply to 215 acres of land along Brookstone and Shamrock boulevards. The land is south of state Route 2, west of state Route 44, north of nearby railroad tracks and east of Diamond Centre Drive.

Mentor received the land in a 2019 settlement with its previous owners.

A motion to waive the three-reading requirement failed to receive the necessary six votes, as Councilmen Matt Donovan and Scott Marn voted against it. The ordinance will go to second reading on Feb. 20.

The proposed ordinance

"This doesn't really change anything," said city Law Director Joseph Szeman. "It just clarifies its exact legal status that has always existed, and it's just to try to get that misunderstanding out there in the public, so that everyone understands the city's goals for the property is not to sell it, it's not to do anything with it currently or in the foreseeable future."

The ordinance would also allow the city to implement "all necessary police and sanitary regulations" to protect the property, as allowed under state law. Violators would be prosecuted in Mentor Municipal Court.

"It has not, since the city acquired title, been open to the public," Szeman said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that members of the public don't decide to go back there.

"People are doing illegal things on our property up there, and it's time that the city more directly address that," he added.

Mentor City Manager Ken Filipiak said that when the city acquires property, it typically designates it as land for preservation until it determines an alternative use in the future.

"It's going to stay in its present virgin green state until such time as we decide otherwise, but that could be 10 years from now, it could be tomorrow," he said. "Nothing has been presented that would change its status. So, this is really just clarifying."

Filipiak added that preservation status would no longer apply if Mentor sold the land or decided to do something else with it. He said that Mentor has "nothing in mind for it."

The city has also considered the land for conservation or preservation projects, including work related to the nearby Mentor Marsh. The city has worked with county and state agencies in recent years to remove around 200,000 tons of salt waste from the nearby Mentor Marsh, he added.

"It's actually land that's pretty well situated in that it sits at the headwaters of the Blackbrook Creek, which flows into the Mentor Marsh, and there's contamination that does come off of that site," Filipiak said.

"We're talking to a couple of conservation agencies about a project," he added. "But, no final steps have been taken toward that just yet. But that would involve a portion of that property."

Concerns

Painesville City Manager Doug Lewis called the properties Painesville's "future industrial park." He estimated that it could host around 1,400 jobs, including "high-paying" light industrial jobs.

He added that Painesville currently has a higher unemployment rate than Mentor.

"Transportation can often be an issue, too, so, close job opportunities in town are kind of prized," said Painesville Assistant City Manager Tony Zampedro.

Lewis said that Painesville proposed creating a 20-year Joint Economic Development District with Mentor in which both communities would receive half of the income tax revenue. His "conservative estimate" included $4.7 million in income tax revenue for Mentor over 20 years, in addition to money from selling the property.

He also expressed concern that a lack of development "could potentially" lead officials to decide that the planned new interchange at Jackson Street and state Route 44 would not be justified, though he said that potential development on that property was not factored into the initial traffic study.

Regarding the issues with Mentor Marsh, Lewis said that Painesville "would want to work with them to make sure that the marsh is protected," but added that the city would need to balance that with development.

A letter from Lewis added that "the Lake County commissioners have proposed a better location for the wetlands to protect Mentor Marsh and have offered the land at no cost."

A letter from Lake County NAACP President Pam Morse mentioned that the ordinance could limit job or housing opportunities for local residents.

A letter from Painesville City Schools Superintendent Josh Englehart stated that the city "has long been a center of generational poverty," and that economic development on the land could provide job opportunities for district families and graduates.

"I think it's a bigger issue than just Mentor-Painesville," Lewis said. "If you look at it, should other communities be able to buy land in a neighboring community and then make a determination as to whether it's going to be developed for economic development purposes or not?"

Lewis, Zampedro and Painesville City Council members Jim Fodor and Derrick Abney spoke at the Feb. 6 Mentor council meeting.

Mentor City Councilman Marn also expressed concerns with the ordinance. He said that Painesville's proposed JEDD would provide Mentor with half of the property's income tax revenue while Painesville would "do all of the work."

Other implications

The property is also subject of a separate legal question involving Mentor and the Riverside School District. The property is tax-exempt, which Mentor City Manager Filipiak said is "fairly common" for property owned by a public entity.

The ordinance "makes clear that we don't have plans to develop it in the immediate future," he added. "So, that preserves its tax status for one."

Painesville's news release stated that Riverside could make $50,000 in property taxes now from the property, and that it could make even more if the property were to be developed.

Riverside is currently appealing the property's tax-exempt status before the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals. A hearing was originally scheduled for March 11 but was moved to May 14 on Feb. 9.

In a letter expressing concerns with the proposed ordinance, District Treasurer Gary Platko said that the district was open to delaying the hearing to allow for "meaningful discussions in this critical local and regional matter."

What's next

Mentor's next city council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 20 in the city's council chambers, located on the third floor of the Mentor Municipal Center, 8500 Civic Center Blvd. A livestream will be available on the Mentor Channel.